If the worldwide steel market were its own country, it probably would have the third-largest gross domestic product (GDP), behind the U.S. and China. Being durable and cost-effective, steel is common in the construction industry, accounting for over half of global consumption.
Despite the pandemic-induced economic slump, steel’s future remains as strong as the material itself. The industry is constantly developing new ways to enhance steel’s strong points, namely its strength, versatility, and cost-effectiveness. Industries that highly utilize steel should keep an eye on the following future innovations:
1. Building Information Modeling (BIM)
With Earth’s population expected to be shy of 10 billion by 2050 (according to United Nations estimates), the industry needs to develop more innovative and resilient designs. Experts see the future in a powerful collaboration system they call BIM.
BIM integrates multiple construction management suites to allow various parties to plan and revise project designs within a single file. By sticking to this master file, engineers, architects, contractors, and other parties can stay updated on changes, mitigating potential delays. It’s such a vital asset that many countries, including the U.S., have mandated its use in future projects.
BIM isn’t unheard of in steel construction, as it had employed advanced project management techniques long before BIM became a thing. The system has resulted in steel building designs with as much form as function, making them appealing for non-industrial projects. This post by worldwidesteelbuildings.com shows how steel has found its way into several residential builds.
2. Stronger Steel
Most historians agree that steel came when humankind learned to work with iron during the Iron Age (1200 BC to 1000 AD). While durable in itself, iron alone won’t hold up much to the rigors of modern construction due to its carbon content. Over the centuries, people learned to add other metals, resulting in the steel in use today.
Steel manufacturing involves reducing the carbon content, usually by heat-treating or alloying. Iron is the base element, comprising over 90% in weight, with other metals and carbon making up the rest. Examples of alloying metals include manganese, chromium, nickel, molybdenum, silicon, tungsten, copper, and vanadium.
However, until recently, the problem with steel was the high cost of using some metals. Nickel, cobalt, and molybdenum make up a considerable fraction of the non-ferrous composition, driving steel prices high. Grain reduction may be an option, but it would enhance strength at the cost of flexibility. In some applications, these two properties should have equal priority.
Fortunately, researchers at Hong Kong University and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab recently found a way to make what they called “super steel.” Through grain-boundary delamination, steel manufacturers can theoretically create steel that’s more flexible and resilient than regular steel, all for the same amount of raw materials, if not lower.
3. Copper Dilution in Steel Recycling
Steel is arguably the most sustainable construction material, with as much as 90% of it recovered at the end of an item’s life. The reduction in negative environmental impact recycled steel brings is not worth missing. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, recycling a car’s worth of steel can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to over 300 gallons of fossil fuel.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have cited one significant hurdle in this sustainable endeavor: copper. Their 2017 study mentioned that copper concentrations above 0.1% of material weight could cause cracking during fabrication. The bad news is that copper can’t be realistically isolated from the scrap.
The good news is that the study also mentions that demand for copper may peak around 2030 before leveling off. By that time, steel manufacturers may reduce copper concentrations to as little as 0.1% of material weight. Until then, the industry has to rely on existing practices such as closed-loop recycling and scrap dilution.
4. Zero Slag Process
Conventional steel manufacturing yields up to 0.2 tons of slag for every ton of steel made. Slag is a byproduct that manufacturers must produce to initiate dephosphorization, the removal of phosphorus from steel production. Yet, manufacturers often end up with more slag than they need, resulting in increased expenses to dispose of or recycle it.
As such, slag reduction has been a hot topic for years. One of the most recent developments features a zero slag process perfected by a Japanese steelmaking company. By limiting the amount of silicon and allowing lime to react with the phosphorus oxides, manufacturers can initiate dephosphorization (and even accelerate it) without the need to produce slag.
The result is cheaper steel, as there’s virtually no cost of slag handling to pass to the end-user. It goes without saying that the Japanese take steel manufacturing and construction with economic considerations, which is something worth learning.
There’s no reason for steel to fall out of favor in the coming years. Current and future technologies will significantly enhance its trademark properties, giving builders and other clients better reasons to consider the material for their projects.